Universities cannot compel professors to use preferred pronouns

I missed this case from last March. It explains why NCSU allows students to enter their preferred pronouns into the student information system, but says nothing about faculty using them.

Shawnee State University instituted a policy requiring that students be referred to by their preferred pronouns, and a faculty member refused to comply. He filed a federal lawsuit, and the Sixth Circuit’s decision strongly defends freedom of speech by faculty at public institutions.

But as Volokh notes, “because of the particular facts, the court did not decide whether a professor could insist on actually using a pronoun that didn’t match the student’s preferred pronoun. Rather, the court only considered whether a professor could decline to use the student’s preferred pronoun.”

Here are some quotes from the decision:

Remember, too, that the university's position on titles and pronouns goes both ways. By defendants' logic, a university could likewise prohibit professors from addressing university students by their preferred gender pronouns—no matter the professors' own views. And it could even impose such a restriction while denying professors the ability to explain to students why they were doing so. But that's simply not the case. Without sufficient justification, the state cannot wield its authority to categorically silence dissenting viewpoints. [...] But as we discuss below, titles and pronouns carry a message. The university recognizes that and wants its professors to use pronouns to communicate a message: People can have a gender identity inconsistent with their sex at birth. But Meriwether does not agree with that message, and he does not want to communicate it to his students. That's not a matter of classroom management; that's a matter of academic speech…. 

The court also ruled that pronouns are a matter of public concern; this is vital for any free speech defense.

When speech relates "to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community," it addresses a matter of public concern. Thus, a teacher's in-class speech about "race, gender, and power conflicts" addresses matters of public concern. A basketball coach using racial epithets to motivate his players does not. "The linchpin of the inquiry is, thus, for both public concern and academic freedom, the extent to which the speech advances an idea transcending personal interest or opinion which impacts our social and/or political lives."

Meriwether did just that in refusing to use gender-identity-based pronouns. And the "point of his speech" (or his refusal to speak in a particular manner) was to convey a message. Taken in context, his speech "concerns a struggle over the social control of language in a crucial debate about the nature and foundation, or indeed real existence, of the sexes. That is, his mode of address was the message. It reflected his conviction that one's sex cannot be changed, a topic which has been in the news on many occasions and "has become an issue of contentious political … debate." 

Never before have titles and pronouns been scrutinized as closely as they are today for their power to validate—or invalidate—someone's perceived sex or gender identity. Meriwether took a side in that debate. Through his continued refusal to address Doe as a woman, he advanced a viewpoint on gender identity. Meriwether's speech manifested his belief that "sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual's feelings or desires." The "focus," "point," "intent," and "communicative purpose" of the speech in question was a matter of public concern.

And even the university appears to think this pronoun debate is a hot issue. Otherwise, why would it forbid Meriwether from explaining his "personal and religious beliefs about gender identity" in his syllabus? No one contests that what Meriwether proposed to put in his syllabus involved a matter of public concern….

Please consider contributing to my legal fund for my free speech lawsuit against NC State.

By Stephen

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Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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